As promised, I’ve given some deeper thought to the passing of Pete Seeger. Widely regarded as the father of American folk music, Seeger represented a man who stayed true to his ideals and let the world hear his message for well over seventy years.
Born in Manhattan in 1919, Seeger’s family traced their roots back 200-plus years to the time of the American Revolution. The son of a famous Harvard-educated musicologist Charles Seeger, Jr., Pete dropped out of college to ride the rails, stir the ashes of the cauldron, and learn folk music directly from the people who sang it every day and pass it down through the noble traditions. I guess he learned folk music from well… folks!
Along the way Pete played with a wide variety of folk artists and put his support behind numerous social causes of the day from Civil Rights to environmental issues to Occupy Wall Street. He played with Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, and was a fixture on 1940’s radio. In true folk tradition he played the 12-string guitar but he became widely known for his use of the banjo.
He penned such well-known tunes as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (with Joe Hickerson), “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)” (with Lee Hays of the Weavers), and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (lyrics adapted from Ecclesiastes).He was also responsible for popularizing the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” that became the acknowledged anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement.
His personal belief system never wavered and are summed up well in his 1942 tune with The Almanac Singers, “Dear Mr.President“.
Now, Mr. President, / We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know, / But that ain’t at all important now. / What is important is what we got to do, / We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and until we do, / Other things can wait.//
Now, as I think of our great land . . . / I know it ain’t perfect, but it will be someday, / Just give us a little time. // This is the reason that I want to fight, / Not ’cause everything’s perfect, or everything’s right. / No, it’s just the opposite: I’m fightin’ because / I want a better America, and better laws, / And better homes, and jobs, and schools, / And no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew,”/ “You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.”//
So, Mr. President, / We got this one big job to do / That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through, / Let no one else ever take his place / To trample down the human race. / So what I want is you to give me a gun / So we can hurry up and get the job done.
America has lost a true original. A man whose beliefs and integrity were strong and whose heart always seemed to be in the right place.
In commenting on Seeger’s death, President Obama noted that Seeger had been called “America’s tuning fork” and that he believed in:
“the power of song” to bring social change. “Over the years, Pete used his voice and his hammer to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights; world peace and environmental conservation, and he always invited us to sing along. For reminding us where we come from and showing us where we need to go, we will always be grateful to Pete Seeger.”
- “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – Pete Seeger w/grandson Tao Seeger
- Pete Seeger Tribute – Newport Folk Festival
- “We Shall Overcome” – historic film clip from early 1960’s
- “Forever Young” – Pete Seeger – from an Amnesty Int’l tribute